A Human-Interest Story
“It’s disappointing in a way. And somewhat confusing. I don’t really know how you’re supposed to handle it. But still, I understand science is not something that just sits there. Like everything else, it goes on. And Clyde knew this better than anyone. Though even in his last days he told anyone who asked him about Pluto, ‘It’s there. Whatever it is, it is there.’”
With that, Patricia Tombaugh leaned back into her chair and away from my recorder. I knew that quote did the trick; it gave me something to work around and finally finish up an article that missed its moment anyway. In more than ten years of journalism, I have seen the window of relevance for a story go from a week to a day to an hour. I often mention this in the proper company, and will even admit to using it in daydreamed Pulitzer Prize acceptance speeches—a rare sentence forged from my own experience in which I find something honest and real, capturing a fleeting glimpse of what it means to live in today’s world. Anyway, it had been three days since Pluto was stripped of its planetary status, and I was sitting in the living room of its discoverer’s widow trying to paste together a human-interest piece out of the scraps the breaking story left behind. In other words, with no natural disasters, celebrity deaths, or government scandals, it was a slow news week. That reminds me of another favorite line often said at the office that I can’t take credit for but would still try to work into my Pulitzer speech: “No news ain’t always good news.”
Before I could thank her, Patricia arched her ninety-two-year-old frame toward my palm-sized digital recorder again. I had told her twice already how it could pick her voice up fine from where she was sitting, but she continued leaning in closer whenever she spoke. I wanted to remind her to sit back and relax but decided against it, letting her believe her proximity to the small microphone enhanced the clarity of her words. She spoke in a delicate but confident voice, gradually linking scattered thoughts together as her mouth patiently made them audible.
"I'm not heartbroken. No. But I suppose I'm a little disappointed. More than anything else, he was a scientist. He understood they had problems when they found several more of these things flying around out there. I think he knew what was on the way. Before he died, they were going around and around and back and forth and back again. Of course he would be disappointed. After so many years of seeing it one way, who wouldn't be?”
She paused, but remained in her hunched pose over the recorder.
“But in the end, it’s like he said: ‘It’s there. Whatever it is.’”
I took the return to this refrain as a cue for me to officially stop the interview, so I reached over and turned off the recorder as Patricia again settled back into her chair. I didn’t glance up to see if she was watching me, but it felt like she was. It wasn’t awkward though. There was serenity in the silence that kept it from leading to discomfort. Perhaps something in the room, the warm natural lighting reaching in through the large bay windows or the tidy arrangement of the furniture. More likely it emanated from Patricia herself. She was a small, lean woman who weathered her ninety-two years with an enviable grace. Her short silver-white curls embraced a smallish head resting atop squared shoulders and nearly perfect posture. The pattern of deep wrinkles around her mouth and eyes proved the smile she shared with me throughout my visit was no stranger to her face. It had been almost ten years since her husband’s death, and she seemed to welcome this opportunity to talk about his accomplishments again, despite what others would view as an attack on his scientific legacy. From the moment I arrived, she made great effort to make me feel at home, so much so that I found it difficult preparing my exit.
As I got up from my chair, Patricia stood with me. Her stature barely changed from when she sat, but she did rise with a swiftness hard to find in most her age. Unlike elderly I had spent time around whose flesh fought to remain rested as muscles strained to pull it upright, she rose with ease and walked me towards the foyer. The short hall leading to the front door displayed a collection of family photographs depicting several generations; quite a few were couples on their wedding days, others portraits of neatly arranged groups—shorter members in front, taller in back. The older, sepia-toned shots captured serious faces; the newer, color photos, smiles. They seemed chronologically arranged and a large oval mirror served as the centerpiece. I imagined Patricia standing before it, seeing herself amongst her past and future. I wanted to ask her what it was like witnessing so much of her own lineage firsthand, but managed only, “Are these all your family?”
“Yes. Well, some are Clyde’s side. In fact, most of the older photos are his relatives. His side of the family was much better at keeping these kinds of things in good condition than mine ever was.”
She smiled and looked toward the newer photos on the right.
“He really was a good family-man. He loved them very much, and tried to let them know it whenever he could. Although, sometimes it may have been hard for others to see. I remember a few nights after seeing the grandkids, how I had to fall asleep listening to Clyde go on about the disappointments he felt in them. He couldn’t understand their work ethic, or as he saw it, lack of one. He’d always end up laughing at himself though, saying something about how ‘It isn’t healthy for a man to live long enough to see his grandchildren older than sixteen’ and ‘how the mind isn’t made to handle that kind of range’ or something along those lines. I’d just tell him that is what great-grandchildren are for. He loved them all dearly, though. Named several asteroids after them.”
I stifled laughter upon hearing her last sentence. Something about the word “asteroid” coming from this short old woman amused me, sounding as incongruous as a three-year old swearing, and it helped lighten a mood that was still carrying some of the weight of our interview session.
“Everyone I spoke with that knew him said what a great man he was,” I told her. Her polite grin and nod confirmed how no such assurance was necessary.
Still waiting for the right moment to leave, I began feeling as I did in school after giving an incorrect answer. I wanted to prove that I knew something, especially about her husband and his contributions to science. And even more so, I began wanted to leave her with a sense that this conversation was more than just my job. I tried again.
“He was lucky to find what he loved at a young age and live a long life pursuing it.” Again, this sounded all wrong--as falsely profound and generic as the scripted voice-over of a film biography shown to a science class.
She laughed. It was nearly inaudible, but more friendly than patronizing.
I did research Clyde Tombaugh for the story however, so my comment wasn’t as insincere as it may have sounded. I knew about his boyhood growing up on a Kansas farm in the early 1900s. I knew about his homemade telescope and the nightly drawings he made of the sky he saw through it. I knew how at twenty-two he sent some of these drawings to an observatory and how the director of that observatory hired him immediately without interview to resume the work of recently deceased Percival Lowell, a scientist who spent his life obsessing over the intelligent race he believed built the canals he thought he saw on Mars and searching for the planet he predicted existed beyond Neptune. I knew a lot about Clyde Tombaugh, but none of it seemed relevant here. Still, I persisted.
“I loved your husband’s response when a reporter asked him what he felt when he discovered Pluto: ‘I thought I had better look at my watch, this could be a historic moment.‘ Great line—very funny.”
Patricia exhaled another soft laugh. “Well, he wasn’t too funny, really. At least not to himself. No, he was serious when he said that; Clyde was always obsessed with time. It’s something I could never quite understand about him, myself. He never tried to be, but I suppose you’re right, he was a very funny man in his own way.”
She stepped closer to a picture of a young, frightened-looking couple on their wedding day that I inferred was Patricia and Clyde, although I struggled to find any resemblance between the woman in the photo and the woman standing next to me. The chemicals recreating their images now fading to shades of brown and beige, the old picture showed the neatly dressed pair holding hands, pale faces cleared of blemishes staring solemnly at the camera. I wondered if their seriousness stemmed from respect for the commitment they just made or from an awed reverence for the mysterious flashing machine working its magic in front of them, which, like my recorder, imposed permanence on an otherwise fleeting moment.
Patricia continued, “It was hard getting used to his seriousness at first. He loved science and space well before he met me. I often wondered if he was capable of loving anything else, let alone me. He was a simple farm boy in many ways, but his ideas about science were so complex. It was hard for him to find anyone to express them to. I tried to follow him, but he knew I was lost the minute he began. One night when we were still very young and not yet married, we sat outside together and I tried to show him how much we had in common. I told him how beautiful I thought the stars were and that I marveled over how my little eyes could see things so far away.”
Her speech was getting much more animated than it was in front of the recorder. She motioned towards the ceiling at the appropriate moments, and the more I watched her, the more I noticed how a subtle smile rarely ever left her thin lips.
“Well, Clyde just continued staring into the sky and told me that I really couldn’t see the stars like I thought I did. He went on and on about how the stars were so far away that the light of even the closest ones took many years to reach us. Then he told me about how when a star dies, we can still see it for many years after it’s gone.”
Patricia stopped and looked at me, reaching out and holding my arm above the elbow and whispering, “Needless to say, this took the romance right out of the moment!”
Her soft laughter again, a bit louder this time, made me admire how such an old memory could still provide so much amusement.
“He must have said something right,” I responded, getting caught up in her good humor and motioning to the group of photos containing what looked like their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Oh, he came around eventually. I think most men do. How about you, Stephen? Do you have a wife waiting at home? Kids?”
Her question took me by surprise, and not for its personal nature. Despite her use of my formal name “Stephen”, our conversation had already moved from professional to personal. It was the shift from her life to mine. How could I begin to give a suitable answer to that question? My relationships with women had all fallen short of anything worth sharing with her. I couldn’t tell her about the clockwork consistency of most of my romances: hurriedly climbing, peaking, and ending by the three-month mark. This reliable trend had an eerie repetition that amused both my friends and myself through most of my twenties. As more of those my age got married and started families, however, it became something I tried harder to keep hidden and deny. I focused more on my work and limited my socializing. As I entered my thirties and the pattern continued, I rationalized it however I could, even attempting to convince myself it had to do with a primal connection to the rhythms of the changing seasons. I never believed it though, nor dared to reveal this nonsense to anyone else. I wanted to tell her to call me Steve, but didn’t. Instead, I managed only, “No. Not yet.”
Silence forced me to elaborate.
“I’m very busy. Work and all. I do a lot of traveling in this job. It makes it hard to meet someone. To settle down.”
She must have sensed my struggle to respond because she didn’t pursue it further.
“I’m sure your day will come. As you said, Clyde certainly came around. Although he had to in his own way.”
She stopped, sighing through her nose as her lips retained that thin smile.
“Let me tell you when I knew about Clyde and I. This goes beyond what you need for your newspaper, but I hope you don’t mind me sharing it with you.”
Another pause allowed me to admire her natural sense of timing essential to any great storyteller.
“A bit after the other time I mentioned but still before we were married, we again sat under the stars. We were pretty quiet this time. I guess I wasn’t in the mood for another science lesson. After a while, he turned to me and just stared. It was very strange. I’d seen him study the sky that way, but never me. It made me pretty uncomfortable. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me about a job he was offered at an observatory in Arizona. One he didn’t even apply for. Just sent some of his sketches. It surprised me to see how sharing this brought him close to tears, and I tried to comfort him without letting him see how shocked I was by the news. As strange a man he may have been, I was beginning to see us sharing a life together. Perhaps he could sense what I felt because that’s when he told me he could never leave me, not even for this job.”
She filled another perfectly placed pause with her soft smile.
“I guess you went with him? You obviously left the Midwest…”
“I did, but I didn’t want to at first. No, not until he said something that helped change my mind. Something so unlike anything I heard him say before. Or after, come to think of it. He told me when he looked into my eyes he felt a comfort he found nowhere else in the universe. That when looking into my eyes he felt a peacefulness, or restfulness…a safety in the idea of how as much as everything else around us would change with time—the heavens, our planet, our own bodies and faces, even moods and feelings—that he could always look into my eyes and see the same thing. And that he could never leave that for anything else, even his night sky.”
Patricia’s grin stretched into a full smile.
“I kept him home for about a week to be sure, but then told him I’d go with him to Arizona.”
We both laughed, but mine was noticeably detached. Her story had my mind thinking a hundred things at once. Mostly about myself. Something within me, perhaps the objective, hard-boiled journalist, questioned the reality in this this romance story spun from memories that probably faded over the years like the photos before us. But at the same time, something about Patricia wouldn’t let me dismiss it as easily as I would dialogue from a television drama. I thought about all she said and about how I wandered this region of the country on the whims of an editor, searching for the perfect scoop and dreaming of accolades I’d probably never receive. About my digital recorder and windows of relevance. About how the Tombaughs discovered something in each other that I had never found--that I struggled to believe even existed. But mostly I thought about the flicker of something I sensed just beyond this old woman’s words and subtle smiles, and how for a moment it was right in front of me. As mysterious as the sun’s rays reflecting back to us off of the distant Pluto or the flash of light capturing the image of the Tombaughs on their wedding day, it was there—whatever it was, it was there.
“Oh I just go on and on sometimes. I hope I’m not holding you up with my stories here,” she said, placing her hand on my back and guiding me to the door. “I’m sorry about that. Talking about Clyde with you stirred up a bunch of old memories, and you can’t stop me once that happens.”
After I assured her she had no reason to be sorry, we shared goodbyes and I promised to send her a copy of my finished story. I then turned and walked to my car, pondering Pluto and my deadline and the impact an adjustment to our solar system had on a ninety-two-year-old woman, doubtful that any words, let alone the thousand I was allotted, could capture its real relevance.